This isn't really about the trouble with high school English everywhere and for all times, but for Washington state here and now. I've recently become involved in a project (I'm a very small cog in the machine) that looks to increase the preparedness of high school students when they get to college English. Right now, in Washington state, 44 percent of high school graduates test at the developmental level of college English, which is mostly about their ability to write and respond to non-literary texts. This translates into 55 percent of students heading to a two-year college testing into developmental English while 12 percent at the competitive four year schools (I think this means University of Washington and Washington State University, not the regional four-year schools, Eastern, Central and Western Washington universities, along with Evergreen State College) do so. The bulk of these students have passed the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, known by its acronym WASL (think of the Christmas drink) which assesses 10th grade skills and expectations.
This is a huge number of students who are being failed by, I'm assuming, the public schools. Spokane Falls has been working on this issue already with one local high school, Shadle Park. The problem may be in the private schools as well, but I don't know about that. I do understand now, somewhat, how students can be saying that they've been getting high grades in junior and senior English classes and then they get hammered when they come to us. The culprit, at least the supposed culprit, is the lack of statewide expectations or criteria for junior and senior English courses. At this point, there is nothing, nothing, indicating what a high school junior or senior level English course should address or what should be taught or what a student should ostensibly learn. Nothing. When I heard that, I was surprised, but not shocked. Students can pass the WASL in 10th grade (sophomore level) and be done with English, at least in a way that can be compared to their classmates statewide. After that, it seems that pretty much anything goes.
What we've found on our own at SFCC (I'm not involved in this) was echoed in the materials I've read about this project. High school students, juniors and seniors, work only with literary texts, or at least almost exclusively with literary texts. Of course, having just read some essays in my Shakespeare class, I'm not sure they are getting solid instruction in that either. The movement college faculty would like to see is toward working with non-literary texts, which means essays and other non-fiction, maybe even book-length non-fiction. It will be interesting to see how various high schools and high school English teachers respond to an impetus to better prepare their students to meet the expectations of college writing rather than being a more insular sort of writing. My guess is all those high school teachers thought they were preparing their students for college work, but given some of the stories my students tell, I could be way off the mark on that.
The focus of the project is not to force high school teachers to do the bidding of college faculty, but to better prepare them by letting them know what sort of writing students will be doing. I know that college faculty won't be changing their expectation to come into alignment with what high school students learn. Colleges and universities should not refocus to build on what the high schools provide but should instead work with the high schools to better prepare the students for the expectations of college writing. In our FYC, we've moved away from the personal essay, from descriptive essays, and focus almost exclusively on reading and responding to texts, non-literary texts, though generally well written and about something of substance. My students this quarter, and until the elections end, will be reading UnSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation. It seems to be a pretty easy read, though students have a hard time picking out the main ideas. I'll post more on this as time goes on, which won't be until May unless I get some new information between then and now.